Is Disney World Actually Better After Reopening?
I spent all of 2019 saving up for Disney passes.
I live about an hour and a half North of the parks and have purchased annual passes twice before.
My plan seemed flawless: one week-long vacation in early 2020, one week-long vacation in early 2021, and several three-day weekend trips in between. The first part of the plan went smoothly, but COVID came and blew the rest of my plans to bits.
Disney World closed on March 16 and didn’t open again until July — and even then, many were scared to go.
In November, my family finally decided to give the happiest place on Earth another shot, and our experience was surreal. A lot has changed at the parks since we were last there in February. Some of the changes are positive, some are negative, but I think on balance, it’s possible that Disney is better than it’s ever been.
Disney’s New Safety Precautions
Before we talk about whether Disney is better than before, we need to address the elephant in the room — is it safe?
Disney has certainly tried to make a trip to one of their parks as safe as possible.
It starts with capping the number of people allowed in the park each day. You now need a reservation to be admitted to the parks whereas before you could just show up with tickets or annual passes.
Before you enter the park, they conduct a temperature check.
While in the part, you must be appropriately wearing a mask at all times except when eating while stationary (I saw a Disney employee clarify this rule to a gentleman who pulled his mask down to eat one of those Turkey legs while walking). Disney employees are very strict at enforcing the rules around masks and there are numerous signs reminding you that not following the rules around masking will result in dismissal from the park.
All lines are now socially distanced with tape on the floor at six-foot intervals.
Most dining establishments are now mobile orders only to prevent lines from forming as people wait for food.
I saw several employees with sanitation equipment and their only job seemed to be disinfecting things that people touched often.
Also, some attractions such as playgrounds and many of the shows are no longer available.
Overall, I was quite impressed with how smoothly Disney has integrated safety features into the park experience. My family has had two outings since March to places where there was a crowd of people: Disney and the “Nights of Lights” in St. Augustine. This event was the only time I thought my family had been too reckless. It was crowded, many people weren’t wearing masks, and in the chaos of the crowd social distancing norms were frequently unintentionally violated. Disney stands out in stark contrast.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Disney is safe relative to any given epidemiologist’s standards of safety or even to your own. I am saying that Disney is safe relative to reasonable expectations and to other places you might encounter a crowd during the pandemic.
Things That Are Worse
I’m grateful that Disney has a mask mandate because its a precaution that is certainly warranted at a theme park.
But there’s no way around the fact that wearing a mask all day is not exactly fun.
Not only do you sometimes feel like you are having trouble breathing, but the mask is a garment that makes the Florida heat even worse — and the heat is one of the major elements you battle on a Disney trip.
There’s also the fact that most people wear sunglasses at Disney and your normal breathing can easily fog up your lenses which can be quite annoying (and if this never happens to you there’s a decent chance you’re not wearing your mask properly).
Many attractions are shut down
Disney features an enormous number of fun things to keep you occupied, so it’s not like having some attractions out of commission will ruin your experience, but it can be mildly disappointing.
One of the things that I always look forward to at the Animal Kingdom is the amazing shows. There’s a Finding Nemo show that makes me cry every time I see it and a Lion King show that is enormous fun. Neither one is currently running. I’m guessing that the issue is not social distancing the audience, but protecting the cast because it looked like the all-animatronic “A Bug’s Life” show was still open.
The other thing that was noticeable through its absence was the playgrounds. This was also felt strongly in the Animal Kingdom whose dinosaur play area has always been a great place to let some restless kids blow off steam. I also missed the Big Top playground by the Dumbo ride. This was an ingenious creation by Disney to make the normally lengthy wait time of Dumbo the flying elephant more bearable. You would get a pager like when you’re waiting at a restaurant and it would buzz when it was your turn to get in line. Instead of spending 40 minutes to an hour in line, you spent it letting your kids run around in an indoor, air-conditioned playground.
Things That Are Better
Really, there’s just one thing that’s better. But it’s way better.
You probably could have guessed this by now: it’s the crowd size.
If you’ve never been to Disney before, it’s a lot of fun, but there are always a lot of people at the park. Imagine a really crowded theme park, then imagine about 10x as many people as you first imagined and you’ll have a pretty good picture of the old Disney on an off day. The crowded days defied belief.
Disney now is certainly not empty — which is actually good. It would kill the vibe if the place felt deserted. Looking around you can tell that there are lots of people there, but it is nowhere close to the infinite sea of humanity that you would have witnessed before COVID.
This has several important implications:
Entering the park takes a fraction of the time
On the day we went to the Magic Kingdom, we pulled into the area where you pay for parking at 9am and stepped foot in the park at 9:15 am.
If you’ve never been to the Magic Kingdom, you might not understand how crazy that is, so let me describe what the process usually looks like:
- Wait in a long line of cars to pay for parking
- Wait in a line of cars to be parked
- Walk to the tram
- Wait for the tram
- Ride to the ticket center
- Wait in the security line for your bag to be checked
- Wait in the ticket line (if you didn’t buy ahead of time)
- Wait for the monorail
- Ride the monorail
- Wait in line to scan your tickets and gain admission
- Enter the park
This process can easily take 45 minutes to an hour (and sometimes more).
The process now is similar, except there’s a temperature check, you might take a bus instead of a monorail, and you can replace the word “wait” everywhere it appears on that list with the phrase “move briskly through.”
Chances are you won’t even need to take the tram to the ticket center because you will be parked so close.
It really is a completely different experience.
Of course, this is one of the things everyone complains about when it comes to Disney.
To be fair, there’s an argument to be made that lines are part of what make Disney special. Riding Space Mountain is fun, but it becomes even more of a noteworthy experience if you had to wait in line for an hour.
A Disney with absolutely no lines would probably be worse not better.
Disney also had a cool “fastpass” system before the virus which let you pick a few rides every day where you got access to a shorter line.
That said, the wait times were still excessive.
Not only are the wait times on average shorter, but because the lines are physically longer (due to social distancing) they move much faster. There’s no way around it now that I’ve experienced it both ways, I’d rather have a 20 minute wait where the line moved quickly than a wait of the same time where I was mostly standing still. A line that’s moving quickly gives you something to do and makes you feel like you’re making tangible progress. Slow moving lines make you feel stuck and miserable.
So the lines themselves are enjoyable, but they are also in the “Goldilocks zone” where they are short enough to get you on your ride faster and give you time to experience lots of attractions, but long enough to give you a pleasurable sense of anticipation.
On our trip to the Magic Kingdom, we went on six rides before taking an early lunch. One of these rides was Peter Pan, a very cool ride that usually has a wait time of 90 minutes. Considering the fact that we got to the park at 9:15 and ate lunch before noon, that means we had an average time between rides of less than 30 minutes. That includes time walking between attractions, time waiting in line, and the time spent on the ride itself.
The Disney World Pandemic Paradox
In a way, you could say that Disney has been a victim of their own success. Their product is so good that demand exceeds supply — even at exorbitant ticket prices. For a long time their profit has been limited only by how many people they could physically stuff in the parks, even if crowded parks made for a diminished guest experience.
That’s not to say that Disney doesn’t care about their guests. Part of what makes the park special is that they are exceptional at crafting a world-class experience and making sure you enjoy yourself. It might look like Disney was choosing profits over people when they let their park get overcrowded, but if they had capped admission to control crowds we would all complain about how hard it is to get into the Happiest Place on Earth.
The Disney World pandemic paradox is that pandemic isn’t good for Disney’s bottom line, but its good for Disney’s customers.
Ultimately, I plan on coming back to Disney as often as I can. My wife has turned me into a raving fan. But I’m going to enjoy this time when the park accidentally stumbled upon a way to make a visit even more magical than usual. I’ll gladly wear a mask to get access to the smaller, more intimate Disney World.